Canola in field.Oil Crops

A rolling landscape of yellow-flowered canola, a bright field of sunflowers, soybeans drying in the September sun, and waving stalks of corn all indicate the vast quantity of vegetable oil consumed in this country.

Oils are used for frying and baking, and in products from salad dressing to margarine. Still, they have an even longer list of industrial uses, from the ink on this publication to road deicers and bio-diesel fuel. From a dietary perspective, the last 50 years have seen a complete turnover in the source of oils. In 1950 U.S. consumption of vegetable oils was 15.5 pounds per person, in 2000 it was 60.7 pounds. All crops combined, Minnesota produces over one billion pounds of vegetable oil, making it one of the top producers in the U.S.

Food scientists at the University of Minnesota analyze fatty acids of specific crop varieties, to determine — for example — which future soybean variety produces the healthiest cooking oil. Because of America's great dependence on fried foods, the most desirable oils remain stable longer, even while subjected to high heat.

Ear of corn.

Corn oil is obtained from seed by squeezing it out, through rollers or hydraulic presses.

A fundamental change occurred in agricultural commodities utilization over the last 50 to 75 years. Crops once used directly as feed, such as corn for pigs, are now broken down into primary components — oil, fiber, and protein — with many markets for each.

The U of M's long-term investigation of new crops, and new uses for the more common, enables Minnesota farmers and industries to compete nationally and globally. Fifty years ago soybeans and sunflowers were not grown here, but U of M research made it possible. And today, farmers and health-conscious consumers benefit from efforts to improve and expand production of canola.


Vacationers crossing northwestern Minnesota likely are unaware that MInnesota is the country's second largest producer of canola. Low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fatty acid, canola oil is growing in popularity.

Minnesota acerage has increased from 8,000 acres to over 250,000 acres in the last decade, providing an alternative crop in an area devastated by diseases in wheat and potatoes. University researchers evaluate canola varieties for: nutrient needs, pest control, and rotation with small grains.    


Sunflowers were not a U.S. farm commodity until U of M agronomists began work with Russian varieties in 1948. In 1967 the first sunflower oil extraction plant in the country was built in Gonvik. Minnesota is now the fifth in sunflower production, with specific types for oil production, human, or bird use.


Flax.Flax is a history lesson in itself. It was brought by colonists and planted for fiber to weave into heavy linen clothing. Linseed oil was extracted from the seed and used as a preservative and paint. As America moved west and urbanized, demand for paint jumped and flax production soared. A huge linseed oil and paint industry developed alongside the country's major flax growing areas of Minnesota and the Dakotas. The first manufacturer of prepared paints in the U.S. was in the Twin Cities, and over half of the major paint companies operated here. By the 1940s Minnesota produced half of the country's flax.

Table showing flax harvest in MN.Flax production was critical during both World Wars to make paint for military equipment, and as feed — flax cakes — for livestock overseas in WWI. Flax acreage dropped sharply after WWII and again as synthetic fibers were developed, and almost disappeared by 1980 as latex paint displaced oil-based products. Today, flax is grown on limited acreage, but there is a renewed interest in the fiber for paper making and as a healthy, edible oil, thanks to plant breeders.

University of Minnesota flax research efforts over the past 110 years reflect society's needs. In 1890, after flax wilt hit the crop several times, the governor appointed the University's botanist and entomologist to, "make all necessary experiments and to find a remedy against this disease." By 1894 one plant that demonstrated resistance was selected, out of thousands evaluated. The progeny was named 'Primost' and released in 1900, the first pure-line flax variety in the U.S. The U of M Agricultural Experiment Station established the world center for flax testing and, until 1972, maintained the thousands of accessions in the world germplasm collection.

Development, Certification and Marketing of U of M Varieties

While the University of Minnesota's Agricultural Experiment Station has responsibility for developing new agronomic — and horticultural — crops, the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association (MCIA) makes the new agronomic varieties available to farmers. MCIA's ties with the University date to 1903, when U of M plant breeders interested in the "systematic encouragement of the use of pedigreed seeds" founded the organization.

Today, the independent non-profit association is Minnesota's official seed certifying agency, providing Identity Preserved and Quality Assurance seed that is high quality and weed free, having been tested in purity and germination laboratories. MCIA also provides pre-certification of forest crops, and native plants — grasses and forbs — services.

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U of M Flax Varieties

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